One hundred years ago Henrik Ibsen was taken by Wilhelm Bergsoe to Punta Imperatore, on my home Island of Ischia. On the steep, winding climb up Ibsen became paralyzed with terror. He said the cliff would collapse at any moment, and they’d be killed. Bergsoe laughed.
“We are in proportion to the cliff as a fly to a tower,” he said.
“But even a fly can bring down a tower if it were on the point of collapse,” Ibsen shot back.
Yesterday as I approached the Poseidon Spa I saw they had taken down a long mesh fence meant to keep non-paying visitors out. I looked around carefully but saw no one, so I proceeded along the top of the stone wall toward the base of the great promontory. There were several one-word signs at an entrance to a walkway: Privato. Which I ignored. Soon I was on a most beautiful and interesting path, which led to stone steps, going upward.
The vegetation above and on both sides of the steep path was a dark, twisted, intricately detailed tangle. Hundreds, thousands of different species of plants and trees. Spiky, dusty-green leaves on thin, pale white branches. Pines and birches and evergreens. A profusion of dark green leaves on densely packed bushes, their exposed roots writhing on the vertical dropping cliff. Damp earth smells. The melancholy calling of bright white gulls, who extended their wings and rode the rising thermals. Far below the churning of clear blue-green water against black rocks. The metal dome capping the squat lighthouse not too far from my perch glowed gold in the sun.
Along the path was a wall of what looked like stone. Pale brown-yellow. Solid. But at the slightest touch the material crumbled and chunks and dust clattered down. The path ahead was covered with debris of the same kind, along with small dark brown and light brown chunks of volcanic material. Further off the path there were small holes, and a six by six by six foot hole carved into the wall. I had read about how peasants would tunnel themselves homes into this material.
I encountered a fence and a sign that said this was the end of the trail, and that danger was up ahead. Well, that’s what I was looking for, so I stepped around it and continued my hike.
The path finally opened to a stunning view of the sea and black-rocked shore line below. In the distance was Punta del Soccorso, and the familiar white chapel, and further beyond was Punta Caruso. The Posiedon Spa complex spread out, with its gardens and terraces and pools fed by the thermal springs, and a large glass building that looked like a greenhouse but was probably a restaurant or an indoor pool.
I shielded the sun from my eyes and scanned the curved Citera beach, searching for my rocky perch. There it was. Directly below where I stood was a nearly vertical drop to the sea. Gulls appeared as tiny white specks as they slowly circled over the water and foamy rocks. Around me trees and bushes and weeds and flowers, a profusion of growth.
I lay down on the ground at the very edge of the cliff and rested my chin on my forearms. Close to my face grass and purple flowers waved in the soft breeze. Behind me were stands of cactus, and here and there inscriptions by people who wished to memorialize their visit.
To my left, across a great chasm, a cliff was eroded into great vertical ridges and crevices that plunged straight down to the sea. On the flat top of the promontory were several low stone buildings. Blue smoke drifted from a chimney. Nearby were two rectangular gardens with furrowed rows.
Irregular patches of the sea were dark blue in shadows of the clouds, and the rest was a great stretch of reflected shimmering sunlight. From this altitude individual waves could hardly be discerned; they were but a pattern of dark lines in a living undulation, a busy glistening, that spread outward in a dizzying vastness.
On the way down I once again carefully examined the crumbly surface of the wall adjoining the path. Embedded were orange-colored fragments, and I easily pulled one loose, bringing down a lot of surrounding material. I was hoping I had found an ancient artifact, perhaps from a Greek bowl, but it was volcanic pumice, surprisingly light. This particular chunk had not seen the light of day for perhaps more than several million years. I put it in my pocket.